Amidst the tumult in the nation’s capital, a quieter reckoning was taking place this week for the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial. Lab Land has been hearing from Emory-affiliated study participants that they’re finding out whether they received active vaccine or placebo.
For example, Emory and Grady physician Kimberly Manning, who had written about her participation in the Moderna study in a Lancet essay, posted on Twitter Tuesday. She discovered she had received placebo, and Read more
The neuropeptide oxytocin, known for promoting social interactions, has attracted interest as a possible treatment for autism spectrum disorder. A challenge is getting the molecule past the blood-brain barrier. Many clinical studies have used delivery via nasal spray, but even then, oxytocin doesn’t last long in the body and shows inconsistent effects.
Emory neuroscientist Andrew Escayg has been collaborating with Mercer/LSU pharmacologist Kevin Murnane on a nanoparticle delivery approach that could get around these obstacles. One of Escayg’s primary interests is epilepsy — specifically Dravet syndrome, a severe genetic form of epilepsy — and oxytocin has previously displayed anti-seizure properties in animal models.
Escayg and Murnane’s recent paper in Neurobiology of Disease shows that when oxytocin is packaged into nanoparticles, it can increase resistance to induced seizures and promote social behavior in a mouse model of Dravet syndrome.
This suggests properly delivered oxytocin could have benefits on both seizures and behavior. In addition to seizures, children and adults with Dravet syndrome often have autism – see this Spectrum News article on the connections.
Escayg reports he is planning a collaboration with oxytocin expert Larry Young at Yerkes, who Tweeted “This is a promising new area of oxytocin research” when the paper was published. Senior postdoc Jennifer Wong has already been working on extending the findings to other mouse models of epilepsy and adding data on spontaneous seizure frequency.
The amygdala is a region of the brain known for its connections to emotional responses and fear memories, and hyperreactivity of the amygdala is associated with symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). That said, it’s quite a leap to design neurosurgical ablation of the amygdala to address someone’s PTSD. This type of irreversible intervention could only be considered because of the presence of another brain disorder: epilepsy.
In a case series published in Neurosurgery, Emory investigators describe how for their first patient with both refractory epilepsy and PTSD, observations of PTSD symptom reduction were fortuitous. However, in a second patient, before-and-after studies could be planned. In both, neurosurgical ablation of the amygdala significantly reduced PTSD symptoms as well as reducing seizure frequency.
Emory researchers have gained insights into how toxic Tau proteins kill brain cells in Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases. Tau is the main ingredient of neurofibrillary tangles, one of two major hallmarks of Alzheimer’s.
Pathological forms of Tau appear to soak up and sequester a regulatory protein called LSD1, preventing it from performing its functions in the cell nucleus. In mice that overproduce a disease-causing form of Tau, giving them extra LSD1 slows down the process of brain cell death.
Blocking the interaction between pathological Tau and LSD1 could be a potential therapeutic strategy for Alzheimer’s and other diseases, says senior author David Katz, PhD, associate professor of cell biology at Emory University School of Medicine.
“Our data suggest that inhibition of LSD1 may be the critical mediator of neurodegeneration caused by pathological Tau,” Katz says. “Our intervention was sufficient to preserve cells at a late stage, when pathological Tau had already started to form.”
Mutations in the gene encoding Tau also cause other neurodegenerative diseases such as frontotemporal dementia and progressive supranuclear palsy. In these diseases, the Tau protein accumulates in the cytoplasm in an aggregated form, which is enzymatically modified in abnormal ways. The aggregates are even thought to travel from cell to cell.
Tau is normally present in the axons of neurons, while LSD1 goes to the nucleus. LSD1’s normal function is as an “epigenetic enforcer”, repressing genes that are supposed to stay off.
“Usually LSD1 and Tau proteins would pass each other, like ships in the night,” Katz says. “Tau only ends up in the cytoplasm of neurons when it is in its pathological form, and in that case the ships seem to collide.”
Former graduate student Amanda Engstrom PhD, the first author of the paper, made a short video that explains how she and her colleagues think LSD1 and Tau are coming into contact.
The Alzheimer’s field has been in a “back to the basics” mode lately. Much research has focused on beta-amyloid, the toxic protein fragment that accumulates in plaques in the brain. Yet drugs that target beta-amyloid have mostly been disappointing in clinical trials.
“It is very exciting to see, for the first time, the landscape of protein N-glycosylation changes in Alzheimer’s brain,” Li says. “Our results suggest that the N-glycosylation changes may contribute to brain malfunction in Alzheimer’s patients. We believe that targeting N-glycosylation may provide a new opportunity to help combat this devastating dementia.”
Supported by a $8 million, five-year grant, an Emory-led team of scientists plans to investigate new therapeutic approaches to fragile X syndrome, the most common inherited intellectual disability and a major single-gene cause of autism.
Fragile X research represents a doorway to a better understanding of autism, and learning and memory. The field has made strides in recent years. Researchers have a good understanding of the functions of the FMR1 gene, which is silenced in fragile X syndrome.
Still, clinical trials based on that understanding have been unsuccessful, highlighting limitations of current mouse models. Researchers say the answer is to use “organoid” cultures that mimic the developing human brain.
The new grant continues support for the Emory Fragile X Center, first funded by the National Institutes of Health in 1997. The Center’s research program includes scientists from Emory as well as Stanford, New York University, Penn and the University of Southern California. The Emory Center will be one of three funded by the National Institutes of Health; the others are at Baylor College of Medicine and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
The co-directors for the Emory Fragile X Center are Peng Jin, PhD, chair of human genetics, and Stephen Warren, PhD, William Patterson Timmie professor and chair emeritus of human genetics. In the 1980s and 1990s, Warren led an international team that discovered the FMR1 gene and the mechanism of trinucleotide repeat expansion that silences the gene. This explained fragile X syndrome’s distinctive inheritance pattern, first identified by Emory geneticist Stephanie Sherman, PhD.
“Fragile X research is a consistent strength for Emory, stretching across several departments, based on groundbreaking work from Steve and Stephanie,” Jin says. “Now we have an opportunity to apply the knowledge we and our colleagues have gained to test the next generation of treatments.”
Looking ahead, a key element of the Center’s research will involve studying the human brain in “disease in a dish” models, says Gary Bassell, PhD, chair of cell biology. Nisha Raj, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in Bassell’s lab, has been studying how FMR1 regulates localized protein synthesis at the brain’s synapses.
“What we’re learning is that there may be different RNA targets in human and mouse cells,” he says. “There’s a clear need to regroup and incorporate human cells into the research.”
Center investigator Zhexing Wen, PhD, has developed techniques for culturing brain organoids (image above), which reproduce features of human brain development in miniature. Wen, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, cell biology and neurology at Emory, has used organoids to model other disorders, such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.
The organoids are formed from human brain cells, coming from induced pluripotent stem cells, which are in turn derived from patient-donated tissues. Emory’s Laboratory of Translational Cell Biology, directed by Bassell, has developed several lines of induced pluripotent stem cells from fragile X syndrome patients.
“All of the investigators are sharing these valuable resources and collaborating on multiple projects,” Bassell says.
Principal investigators in the Emory Fragile X Center are Jin, Warren, Bassell, and Wen, along with Eric Klann, PhD at New York University, Lu Chen, PhD, and 2013 Nobel Prize winner Thomas Südhof, MD. Chen and Südhof are neuroscientists at Stanford.
Co-investigators include biostatistician Hao Wu, PhD and geneticist Emily Allen, PhD at Emory, neuroscientist Guo-li Ming, MD, PhD, at University of Pennsylvania, and biomedical engineer Dong Song, PhD, at University of Southern California.
Allen, Warren and Jin are part of an additional grant to Baylor, Emory and University of Michigan investigators, who are focusing on FXTAS (fragile X-associated tremor-ataxia syndrome) and FXPOI (fragile X-associated primary ovarian insufficiency). These are conditions that affect people with fragile X premutations.
Fragile X syndrome is caused by a genetic duplication on the X chromosome, a “triplet repeat” in which a portion of the gene (CGG) gets repeated again and again. Fragile X syndrome affects about one child in 5,000, and is more common and more severe in boys. It often causes mild to moderate intellectual disabilities as well as behavioral and learning challenges. About a third of children affected have characteristics of autism, such as problems with eye contact, social anxiety, and delayed speech.
The award for the Emory Fragile X Center is administered by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with funding from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
People with the “classic” type 1 form of narcolepsy have persistent daytime sleepiness and disrupted nighttime sleep, along with cataplexy (a loss of muscle tone in response to emotions), sleep paralysis and vivid dream-hallucinations that bleed into waking time. If untreated, narcolepsy can profoundly interfere with someone’s life. However, the symptoms can often be effectively, if incompletely, managed with medications. That’s why one question has to be: would DBS, implemented through brain surgery, be appropriate?
The room where it happens. Sandwiched between the thalamus and the pituitary, the hypothalamus is home to several distinct bundles of neurons that regulate appetite, heart rate, blood pressure and sweating, as well as sleep and wake. It’s as if in your house or apartment, the thermostat, alarm clock and fuse box were next to each other.
Emory audiences may be familiar with DBS as a treatment for conditions such as depression or Parkinson’s disease, because of the pioneering roles played by investigators such as Helen Mayberg and Mahlon DeLong. Depression and Parkinson’s can also often be treated with medication – but the effectiveness can wane, and DBS is reserved for the most severe cases. For difficult cases of narcolepsy, investigators have been willing to consider brain tissue transplants or immunotherapies in an effort to mitigate or interrupt neurological damage, and similar cost-benefit-risk analyses would have to take place for DBS.
Willie’s paper is also remarkable because it reflects how much is now known about how narcolepsy develops. Read more
Researchers from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center have shown Zika virus infection soon after birth leads to long-term brain and behavior problems, including persistent socioemotional, cognitive and motor deficits, as well as abnormalities in brain structure and function. This study is one of the first to shed light on potential long-term effects of Zika infection after birth.
“Researchers have shown the devastating damage Zika virus causes to a fetus, but we had questions about what happens to the developing brain of a young child who gets infected by Zika,” says lead researcher Ann Chahroudi, MD, PhD, an affiliate scientist in the Division of Microbiology and Immunology at Yerkes, director of the Center for Childhood Infections and Vaccines (CCIV), Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA) and Emory University, and an associate professor of pediatrics in the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Emory University School of Medicine.
“Our pilot study in nonhuman primates provides clues that Zika virus infection during the early postnatal period can have long-lasting impact on how the brain develops and works, and how this scenario has the potential to impact child behavior,” Chahroudi continues.
The study, published online in Nature Communications, followed four infant rhesus monkeys for one year after Zika virus infection at one month of age. Studying a rhesus monkey until the age of 1 translates to the equivalent of 4 to 5 years in human age. Researchers found postnatal Zika virus infections led to Impairments in memory function, significant changes in behavior, including reduced social interactions and increased emotional reactions, and some gross motor deficits. These changes corresponded with structural and functional brain changes the researchers found on MRI scans – findings that indicate long-term neurologic complications.
“Our findings demonstrate neurodevelopmental changes detected at 3 and 6 months of age are persistent,” says first author Jessica Raper, PhD, research assistant professor at Yerkes. (See Science Translational Medicine for an earlier study by members of the current research team.) “This is significant because it gives healthcare providers a better understanding of possible complications of Zika beyond infection during pregnancy and into the first years of life,” she adds. Read more
An international team led by Emory scientists has gained insight into the pathological mechanisms behind two devastating neurodegenerative diseases. The scientists compared the most common inherited form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and frontotemporal dementia (ALS/FTD) with a rarer disease called spinocerebellar ataxia type 36 (SCA 36).
Both of the diseases are caused by abnormally expanded and strikingly similar DNA repeats. However, ALS progresses quickly, typically killing patients within a year or two, while the disease progression of SCA36 proceeds more slowly over the course of decades. In ALS/FTD it appears that protein products can poison cells in the nervous system. Whether similar protein products exist in SCA36 is not known.
What Zachary McEachin, PhD, and Gary Bassell, PhD, from Emory’s Department of Cell Biology, along with a team of collaborators at Emory, the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, and internationally from Spain and Japan, discovered have provided a new paradigm for thinking about how aberrant protein species are formed. Regardless of the disparate clinical outcomes between these diseases, this research could broaden the avenue of research toward genetically targeted treatments for such related neurodegenerative diseases.
Their study, published Tuesday in Neuron, provides a guide to types of protein that build up in brain cells in both disorders, and which should be reduced if the new mode of treatment is working in clinical trials.
“We are thinking of these diseases as genetic doppelgängers,” says McEachin, a postdoctoral fellow in Bassell’s lab. “By that, I mean they are genetically similar, but the neurodegeneration progresses differently for each disease. We can use this research to understand each of the respective disorders much better — and hopefully help patients improve their quality of life down the road with better treatments.”
An estimated 16,000 people in the United States have ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. The most common inherited form of ALS/FTD occurs because there is an abnormally expanded repeat of six DNA “letters” stuck into a gene called c9orf72.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has awarded Bassell’s and Wang’s laboratories $2.2 million over five years to examine the neuronal function of Muscleblind-like proteins, which play key roles in myotonic dystrophy.
Gary Bassell and Eric Wang have been collaborating on myotonic dystrophy research
The classic symptom for myotonic dystrophy is having trouble releasing one’s grip on a doorknob, but it is a multi-system disorder, caused by expanded DNA triplet or quadruplet repeats. RNA from the expanded repeats is thought to bind and sequester Muscleblind-like proteins, leading to an impaired process of RNA splicing.
Congratulations to the CureGRIN Foundation, which was recently awarded a capacity-building grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s Rare as One Network. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is giving 30 patient advocacy groups such as CureGRIN $450,000 each over two years.
CureGRIN works closely with Emory pharmacologist Stephen Traynelis, who has been investigating rare genetic disorders affecting NMDA receptors, which play key roles in memory, learning and neuronal development. When NMDA receptor function is perturbed by mutations, symptoms appear in infancy or early childhood, usually including epilepsy and developmental delay.